Review: Queen (Victory Gardens Theater)

| April 26, 2017

Priya Mohanty and Darci Nalepa star as Sanam and Ariel in Queen, Victory Gardens Theater           


Written by Madhuri Shekar
VG Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
thru May 14  |  tix: $15-$60  |  more info
Check for half-price tickets   


World premiere makes bee ecology science both fascinating, provocative


Priya Mohanty and Darci Nalepa star as Sanam and Ariel in Queen, Victory Gardens Theater

Victory Gardens Theater presents

Review by Catey Sullivan

Unlike most of us humans, bees leave the world a better place than they found it. Without the pollination carried out by the billions of honey bees swarming over the planet, global famine would follow. Take these tiny but mighty creatures out of the equation, and the foundation of the food chain collapses, taking everything else down with it.

Priya Mohanty stars as Sanam Shah in Queen, Victory Gardens TheaterWith those facts in mind, the statistics that playwright Madhuri Shekar cites in her compelling new drama Queen are beyond alarming. Over the past decade, roughly 10 million honeybees have been wiped out by pesticides (The number is corroborated by EPA figures. In 2016, the EPA estimated that 44 percent of all honey bee colonies died off in 2015 alone).

The scientists and best friends at the heart of Queen have proof that could quite literally save the world: Their multi-year study proves that Monsanto – the massive agri-business that has made billions upon billions by growing genetically modified crops – is the culprit. In their zeal to grow ever-more lucrative crops, Monsanto has been spraying their fields with a pesticide known as a neonicotinoid. After almost a decade of laborious research, Ariel Spiegel (Darci Nalepa) and Sanam Shah (Priya Mohanty) have conclusive, irrefutable proof that the neonicotinoids are to blame for the collapse of hundreds of thousands of bee colonies.

As Queen opens, Ariel and Sanam are in the final stages of preparing their findings for publication. And not just any publication: Their damning study will be the cover story in “Nature,” the most prestigious and well-read journal in their field. They’re poised to be stars and revolutionaries, game-changers who can bring down one of the earth’s biggest Goliaths.

Directed by Joanie Schultz, Queen follows the women through the weeks leading up to publication and a crucial presentation of the study. At the crux of the drama: An 11th hour batch of data that just doesn’t jibe with the previous research. As Ariel and Sanam explain, the problem would be easy to fix – they could simply leave the last-minute findings, which only constitute a fraction of a fraction of the results anyway. They could tweak the mathematical model so that the statistically tiny aberration would all but undetectable.

Darci Nalepa and Priya Mohanty star as Ariel and Sanam in Queen, Victory Gardens TheaterAdam Poss and Priya Mohanty star as Arvind and Sanam in Queen, Victory Gardens Theater

Their other option – leave the data in, and note the discrepancy – would be cataclysmic for the women both personally and professionally. They’d have to admit that their research model was flawed. Publishing would be out of the question. Years of arduous research and calculations would have been for naught. Future job prospects would vanish, leaving single mom Ariel on shaky economic ground.

Ariel and Sanam’s disagreement over how to handle the problem escalates quickly and steeply. Spiegel argues that the statistical aberration doesn’t change what they both know to be true beyond any doubt: Monsanto’s neonics are killing bees. Sanam argues that insignificant or not, they have a scientific duty to account for all the data.

Over the course of 80 minutes, Queen digs into the ramifications of the dilemma, showing audiences a fascinating collision between the hard, unwavering facts of science and the endlessly mutable hearts and minds of scientists.

Shekar has one glaring improbability in her plot. While Sanam and Ariel clash over what to do with their study, they’re eventually in agreement about one thing: If they finesse the numbers to keep the results intact, nobody would ever know. That view is shared by their boss, Dr. Philip Hayes (Stephen Spencer). When he urges them to do what they need to in order to keep the publication schedule on track, it’s with the conviction that nobody would ever know the difference.

Priya Mohanty and Adam Poss star as Sanam and Priya in Queen, Victory Gardens Theater

That hardly seems likely, given the resources and the stakes that Monsanto has in this research. The seed giant has hundreds of scientists and an armada of attorneys and public relations people on its staff. Faced with research blaming it for opening the door for global famine, Monsanto would put everything it had into discrediting the science. They’d find the flaw. And scientists of Ariel, Sanam and Philip’s caliber would surely realize that.

Queen is fascinating nonetheless, both in terms of the science and the humans it presents. Shekar’s dialogue is witty, provocative and insightful as delves both the sense and the sensibility surrounding science and scientists.

Mohanty’s Sanam is a tough, intelligent woman as deft at navigating awkward dates as she is a head-spinningly complex algorithm. Spiegel is terrific as a top-notch researcher whose passionate beliefs about right and wrong end up on a collision course with her research. Also memorable is Adam Poss, who plays Arvind, a derivatives trader Sanam meets on a blind date. Poss hilariously delivers the smug and smarmy charm of a guy who makes a killing daily in the stock market. But he’s more than the obnoxious derivatives bro he initially seems. The more we see of Arvind, the more complicated and appealing he becomes.

Throughout, Shekar manages to break down the science behind bee ecology and neonicotinoids without a lot of laborious exposition. Bees, Ariel notes, live without ego or bias or manipulation. They each do what is best for the entire hive to survive. Queen – gently and without didacticism – implies that humans’ paths might take a page from their book.

Rating: ★★★½

Queen continues through May 14th at VG Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map), with performances Tuesdays-Fridays at 7:30pm, Saturdays 3pm & 7:30pm, Sundays 3pm.  Tickets are $15-$60, and are available by phone (773-871-3000) or online through (check for half-price tickets at More information at time: 80 minutes, no intermission)

Stephen Spencer, Priya Mohanty and Darci Nalepa star in Queen, Victory Gardens Theater

Photos by Liz Lauren




Priya Mohanty (Sanam Shah), Darci Nalepa (Ariel Spiegel), Adam Poss (Arvind Patel), Stephen Spencer (Dr. Philip Hayes)

behind the scenes

Joanie Schultz (director), Chelsea M. Warren (set design), Janice Pytel (costume design), Heather Gilbert (lighting design), Thomas Dixon (sound design, original music), Aaron Quick (projection design), Isaac Gomez (dramaturgy), Charlotte Drover (assistant director), Lynne M. Harris (stage manager), Liz Lauren (photos)


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Category: 2017 Reviews, Biograph Theatre, Catey Sullivan, Victory Gardens, World Premier

Comments (0)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

There are no comments yet. Why not be the first to speak your mind.

Comments are closed.